Wednesday, October 13, 2010

12/20/2010 Update: A number of auto makers, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute filed a petition today in the US Court of Appeals against the EPA's partial waiver (described in the main story below) allowing E15 fuel sales. The appeal claims the waiver should not be allowed on three grounds: 1) the EPA is not mandated to allow a partial wavier (eg, allowing fuel in the marketplace that only works with some of the existing fleet); 2) that the testing supporting the use of E15 in late model vehicles was not placed in the record in a timely fashion, preventing public comment; and 3) that the laws that the EPA operates under prevent it from allowing situations where "mis-fueling" will create emission failures and extra pollution.


The US EPA announced that it would be allowing the sale of E15 fuel (15% ethanol/85% gasoline) for use in cars and light duty trucks beginning with Model Year (MY) 2007 and newer, and that they are investigating allowing E15 sales for cars and light trucks from MY 2001 and newer. The report on that may be issued next month. Motorcycles, heavy duty vehicles and off road engines are explicitly exempted from the waiver because of a lack of testing.

Background: The US EPA is required not to allow significant changes to the fuel supply without verifying that there will be no adverse problems as a result. This is what has brought us E10 fuels over the last decade or so. The request for a waiver allowing E15 came from Growth Energy, an ethanol fuel industry trade organization in 2009. Testing by the Department of Energy (DOE) is the basis for granting the waiver. Growth Energy is also requesting allowing a waiver to sell E12 fuel for older vehicles, but that has not been ruled on.

Reactions are all over the map, and are mostly predictable. Naturally, the ethanol fuel producers are thrilled, as are biofuel producers in general. Politicians from corn growing states are happy as are some conservative groups who see American produced fuels as a security bullwark.

Some "green" organizations are also pleased, but far from all: the National Resources Defense Council has come out against it: "Burning ethanol can cause toxic air pollutants to be emitted from vehicle tailpipes, especially at higher blend levels like E15. The chemistry is fairly straightforward: ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, causing catalytic converters to break down faster. Cars with broken tailpipe controls are disproportionally responsible for air pollution from vehicles."

Nearly every group associated with food production is very unhappy, as any higher demand for corn to create ethanol will undoubtedly impact the price paid by meat producers and processed food producers for their raw materials, including feed and corn syrup. There will be impacts beyond America's borders as well: an increase in the cost of corn will affect countries that depend on it as a basic foodstuff, such as Mexico.

The oil industry is concerned about "misfueling" liabilities, as there will surely be problems and confusion at the pump about what to put into a particular vehicle, even with the new labelling that the US EPA also unveiled. And oil importers dislike the ruling, as it naturally cuts into their imports (which is kind of the idea).

Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, issued a statement that is more relevant to our little corner of the world: "Ethanol is corrosive to rubber products and some plastics. The higher you push (ethanol) concentration, the greater the chance, especially on older cars, you'll have fuel leaks, and possible fires."

As our bikes don't have catalytic converters (at least not until 2018 when we start including the first generation of Oilheads into our Classics era), we are not concerned about that aspect of changing emissions. But for our older bikes, higher ethanol concentrations are all bad news.

Ethanol's effects have long been noted about rubber and plastics around the fuel system, requiring regular replacement of fuel lines and the redesign of some parts such as ethanol resistant floats in the Airhead models.

Ethanol is a volatile compound and can evaporate from the fuel mixture in a short time, which is bad if fuel is left stored in a bike's gas tank for weeks or months. Because ethanol is also hydrophilic, meaning it attracts water from the air, this can increase the amount of water in the bike's tank, leading to plugged carburetter jets and rust in the gas tank (which can also be exacerbated by ethanol's acidic nature).

The fact that ethanol increases the combustion temperatures of our air cooled motors is also not good. In many parts of the country during the summer, and the southwest most of the year, increased air temperatures can combine with bad traffic to really tax the oil circulating in our engines, thinning it out and burning it up. Ethanol is a solvent for oil, and tends to wash away the oil film on cylinder walls, wearing rings, pistons and cylinders (for non-Nikasil plated cylinders) more rapidly. The higher combustion temperatures also take a toll on valves and valve seats, especially the original seats in the 1981-1984 period where BMW's original valve seat metallurgy does not do an adequate job of heat transfer from the valves.

And as time marches on, will we see the end of lower ethanol concentrations as the pre-E15 models fade away? In 12-15 years there may not be anything less than E15 available for purchase at most gas stations. Motorcycles are a tiny fraction of the vehicle mix, and old motorcycles a microscopic proportion. We should expect to not get any kind of review by the various institutions and organizations involved in this battle, because we are too small to care about.

Political and financial calculations will matter a great deal more than the science or suitability arguments. If corn production state politicians (regardless of party affiliation) are needed to make the political process move, then there will continue to be generous subsidies and support for ethanol fuel. They will be countered, to some extent, by politicians representing oil interests, both domestic and imported.

While these groups battle it out, we will be left to our own devices, to find replacement parts that are not affected and carefully search for lower ethanol fuel sources.